Cale Fleury was a third-round selection of the Montreal Canadiens at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. He was excited about joining such a storied franchise, though not entirely surprised that Montreal chose him after discussions between the two parties at the NHL Scouting Combine.
“I kind of had a gut feeling it would be them,” he said in a conversation with the Cranbrook Daily Townsman a few days after his selection.
Known for their interest in character players, the Canadiens added in Fleury a defenceman who shows a lot of maturity for an 18-year-old. He was named captain of the WHL’s Kootenay ICE in mid-January, becoming just the fourth to claim the badge at such a young age in the franchise’s history.
What he claimed the captaincy of was the worst team in the WHL, finishing the season well out of the playoff picture with a 14-46-10-2 record. The team was last in the league in goals scored with 177, and gave up almost twice as many, allowing 335.
A result of the massive negative goal differential the team accrued, the bottom nine of the league’s plus-minus column was made up solely of ICE players, with Fleury claiming the worst mark of all at -61. With the season all but lost at the trade deadline, the team parted with two of its top forwards in exchange for future assets, and went on to finish the year with a 3-22 record in the final 25 games.
Through it all, Fleury was displaying his lauded work ethic every game, being the team’s top defenceman and facing the opposition’s best players in all situations. That relentless effort earned him a place in the CHL Top Prospects game, named an injury replacement for the Canadiens’ fifth-round selection, Jarret Tyszka.
The goal-differential issues followed him all the way to that exhibition match in Quebec City, where he finished the game with no points to show for his three shots, and was a -3 in a game his side won 7-5.
“[H]e had an excellent game,” stated Director of Player Personnel Trevor Timmins while debriefing reporters on the Habs’ 2017 draft class, confirming how little stock the team placed in the outdated plus-minus stat, focusing rather on the skill set of the player they eventually chose.
Fleury showed steady progression in his offensive game over his first three years with Kootenay, ending the season with 11 goals and 27 assists. That ranked him third on the team in points, and the total was 15 points better than that of the second-best blue-liner. Even with how poorly his team played, he finished tied for 14th among WHL defenders with 15 primary points (goals and primary assists) at five-on-five (via Prospect-Stats).
The majority of panellists — including the averaged ballots of over 500 members of the community making up the “EOTP” ranking — believe that Fleury deserves a spot among the top 25 young Habs players. Five of us have him ranked as high as 20th.
He runs the streak of a third-round selection making our list immediately after he was drafted to three years, with Lukas Vejdemo ranking 21st in 2015 and Will Bitten making his debut at 14th last year.
One of the main things you’ll notice about Fleury’s game is his confidence when handling the puck. Being hemmed in his own zone for a large percentage of the season didn’t allow for those puck control skills to be displayed as much as he would have hoped heading into the NHL draft, but scouts still got a glimpse of how effective his transition game can be.
He skates with his head up, allowing him to see the lanes open to him, preferring to find a teammate to pass to in order to gain the offensive zone. He is just as capable of carrying the puck himself, and shows some good puck-protection instincts to fend off forwards as he moves up ice.
His lateral movement and crossover technique allow him to build speed and beat defenders across the ice to attack the wings, letting him gain the zone on his own to set up the offence. The rushes he started were some of the only opportunities the ICE got for offence; something highlighted in the following telling chart put together by Mitch Brown.
WHL 2017 draft eligible defenders by Team Involvement % (Points/TM Goals). #Habs Cale Fleury w/ the 2nd highest, ahead of two 1st rounders. pic.twitter.com/9WCgPWUJAe— Mitch Brown (@MitchLBrown) July 10, 2017
He was behind only 16th-overall selection Juuso Välimäki in the percentage of his team’s offence that he was directly involved in, getting his name on the scoresheet at a rate of better than once every five goals.
Not afraid to attempt a stretch pass through traffic, he can set up an odd-man rush in a hurry for his teammates, helping his assist totals. In the offensive zone he has some good finishing skills himself, possessing a quick snapshot he can use to good effect when pinching down toward the crease, but has a decent shot (whether a slapshot or a wrister) from the blue line as well.
In the defensive zone he shows decent awareness with a willingness to battle. He likes to use his size to separate his check from the puck, and stated that he actually prefers landing a big hit to scoring a goal.
His physicality is one the traits he lists first when describing himself and his game. At 201 pounds as an 18-year-old, there’s lots of room to get even bigger and become a more punishing defender.
The focus on hitting can get Fleury into trouble as he sometimes gets himself out of position trying to lay out his man. In the defensive zone he can get a bit scrambly and will chase the play trying for a crushing bodycheck or looking to force a turnover, which can allow his man to gain an open lane to the net.
Defensive-zone positioning is an area he recognizes as one in need of improvement for him to have a successful professional career. His battles in front of the net are another aspect he feels he can work on, needing more strength and balance to go with his size to be effective at more stationary defending.
His skating techniques are quite good, but his speed isn’t at the level it will need to be if he is to carry his transition game to the top level. That area should be improved by increasing his overall strength, giving him a more powerful stride.
The stretch pass, while it has the ability to be a game-breaker offensively, more often than not results in a giveaway that turns your team’s hard-won possession right back into an opposition advantage. Fleury was guilty of such turnovers throughout the season, and while you can argue it was a valid strategy given how heavily outmatched his team was, taking a more patient approach in transition will serve him much better in his development.
He also targets his offensive game as an area he can improve, which is encouraging for a player who has already shown to have good instincts and skills with the puck, while increasing his offensive output every season.
Fleury will be returning to Kootenay in the fall, though the organization he will be reprising his role as captain for will be very different from the one he left in March.
At the end of the season, the ICE were sold to a new ownership group, who brought in a new president and general manager, as well as installing former NHL defenceman James Patrick as head coach, with Jon Klemm as his associate.
The approach for the new coaching staff will be aimed at improving Kootenay’s defence, which should be a big help to Fleury as he works on the deficiencies in his game. His positioning in his own end should be one of the aspects most impacted by the shift in strategy, and that should have a cascade effect on his puck retrieval, transition, and offensive games as well.
He has just about all the skills you could ask for in a defenceman, and those should only improve with age and proper training. His ceiling is that of a top-four NHL defenceman, able to be a key part of a defence corps in all three zones, which would be an excellent return for a late third-round pick.
Cale Fleury is one of the most intriguing prospects the Montreal Canadiens have, and will be one of the top players to watch as he and his team look to take major steps forward in 2017-18.